Passport to Pakistan
Pakistan – First Impressions
“Welcome to Pakistan.”
I’m not going to lie, no one wanted me to go to a place that according to the media was in a state of war and where there were airport bombings and gunmen opening fire on planes. I stepped onto the plane wondering if this was indeed my death wish. I had travelled in some risky situations before, but I never caught a flight there. The dangerous places before just happened to fall into my travel path and now as I was waiting in the departure lounge I couldn’t help looking around at my fellow passengers and feeling like I was in a ‘spot the odd one’ puzzle. Despite wearing an outfit not unlike the traditional shalwaar kamez, I couldn’t help feel they saw straight through my disguise.
After a long two day journey stopping through Bangkok I had finally reached Karachi کراچی. As we descended for landing the colours of Pakistan emerged through the clouds and I was able to catch small glimpses of the place I would call home for the next month. Browns and dusty yellows of the desert soon were covered by agricultural lands, then little white houses and then before long the dusty yellow had disappeared and swallowed up by the urban sprawl of a city whose population is more than the entire of Australia. I couldn’t help thinking of the 25 million people who live within this area, the third most densely populated area of the world, and this was only one city in the whole of Pakistan which is (almost) 200 million people!
We touched down through the dusty mist that fell across the city. As I peered out the window shells of buildings covered in black remained reminding me of the recent Karachi airport bombings that happened only weeks before. But before I could really question my decision there was a reassuring atmosphere around me as there was a smile shared by everyone on the plane, a smile I would become all too familiar with in the next days to come.
The Pakistani people are gentle and very hospitable in their ways, all too eager to show you the side of their city that is not portrayed in the media. A side without airport bombings, without border tensions, military control, tribal disputes and the ever reported Taliban. A side of Pakistan with beautiful culture, monument visits, visits to the bazaars, Ramadan traditions, sea side adventures and beautiful conversations with educated and open minded Pakistani friends.
I am lucky enough to also have an apartment to share with some other foreign interns. It is located conveniently right across the road from my NGO, War Against Rape, where I am doing my internship, in one of the best shopping districts in Karachi. A place alive with people during the day.
But there is certainly beauty in this different culture. Pakistan’s official religion is Islam, making up 94.6% of the population so there is an alcohol ban. It is refreshing to visit a place where the daily routine does not end in a couple of beers to finish the day, instead people can enjoy a chai and sheesha.
The conservatism in the way both genders dress and the way they interact with one another as I have observed from the people I have been lucky enough to call my friends here is not one of oppression that the media portrays, but one of respect. The traditional dress called shalwar kameez شلوار قمیض, is modest yet there is an elegance in the way the women wear it that flaunts their femininity in a way that is not as obvious as the Western way. Even the more conservatively dressed women do so to show respect and in turn demand respect from others around them. The lack of sexualised billboards and advertisements around is also refreshing and is not missed!
The Pakistani people are proud of who they are, and I believe for good reason. They are some of the most hospitable and genuine people that I have met on my travels and are always eager to show you the positive side of their city that the media does not portray. All of the beautiful Pakistanis I am
The streets are filled with men enjoying twilight cricket at night time. It is a place to call home for me and 7 other girls from the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey and China all doing internships as well. Each offering support for one another in a place that is unlike anywhere we come from. And we have enough pedestal fans to have one each to keep our stifling hot nights and days a little more bearable (especially when the power cuts come on and when we run out of water)!
Life in Karachi is not always easy though. There are many things you have to consider that you take for granted at home. There are different unspoken rules that as a foreigner you have to constantly remind yourself about. Covering up your body, not wearing anything that creates a silhouette of your curves, and even though sometimes you may feel safe it’s always best to be aware of your surroundings. There is a line at the airport for passport processing for “unaccompanied women and minors”. At night time there are corner chai stores filled with people chatting and socialising, but all are men. On my first day in Karachi I was invited to visit a chai store as I wanted to experience the local culture and tastes. However the chai was delivered to the car and we sat inside enjoying it peering out behind the window shades that blocked me from the view of the people outside. My friends assured me it was for my own safety and reputation as women outside at that time of night are seen as prostitutes.
Each day I am greeted different people all eager to show us different sides of Pakistan. I was lucky enough just last night to be invited for iftari (the meal at the end of the day’s Ramadan fasting) at a local Pakistani’s house. We shared a huge buffet meal of delicious local Pakistani food with his lovely family in his home. It was nice to see the close interactions between the family members and notice how no matter where you are in the world a close supportive family is always important.
I am looking forward to immersing myself in the culture, wearing the traditional clothes, trying to fast for Ramadan, eating all of the traditional food and more than anything seeing and experiencing a side of Pakistan that is not portrayed in the media.
Hannah Sutton is currently in Pakistan, working with War Against Rape, a NGO focused on creating rape free societies.